Bruddersford and beyond
Bruddersford and beyond
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the life of Priestly in Bradford and after Bradford. Bradford was the paradigm of nineteenth-century industrial England. This was the England of slag-heaps and mill chimneys and doss-houses, back-to-back slums and cindery waste-grounds, and ‘grim, fortress-like cities’. Bradford was one of the most socialist and dissenting cities of England. From this culture, Priestly took two profound ideological influences: socialism and dissent. For Priestly socialism and dissent became part and parcel of a rich, democratic and self-sufficient cultural life, which is recreated in his novels. Priestly projected his vision of Bradford on to the nation. The ideal England he evoked in wartime was not some proletarian paradise but ‘all one lot of folk’ writ large.
By the end of the 1930s Priestley was a different kind of writer from the one he had been at the start of the decade. Now society was no longer a backdrop to his novels but the central character, and his journalism had shifted away from literary reviews and belles-lettristic essays towards social observation and the forthright expression of political opinions. In this he was part of a new cultural trend, towards social investigation, social criticism and politics, along with the documentary film movement, Mass Observation, Picture Post and writers such as George Orwell, and many of those who, along with Priestley, were labelled ‘middlebrow’. This trajectory led Priestley to his prominent role in the Second World War, which will be examined in the next chapter. First, before discussing what he wrote in the 1930s, we explore the roots of his social and political critique, in pre-1914 Bradford, the ‘Bruddersford’ of his novels.1
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Priestley did not come to politics in the 1930s: it was in his upbringing, and in his blood. He grew up in one of the most radical cities in England, the cradle of the Labour movement, and in a household awash with political discussion. As he later declared, with reference to the 1930s public-school Marxists,
I did not discover ‘the proletariat’ in late night talks in some tutor's rooms at Oxford. I grew up with the proletarians in one of the grimmest industrial regions in the country, and indeed their blood is mine just as, I hope, their dreams are mine.2
It has been suggested that Priestley is romanticising here, suppressing his suburban lower middle-class origins in order to lend credence to his stance as a social critic and supporter of the working class.3 But however overblown his language may be, the facts are as he states them.
(p.36) Bradford was an uncompromisingly industrial town, based on one industry, wool, which had caused its rapid growth in the nineteenth century and shaped its character. Priestley's family, like many in such industrial towns, was socially mixed, spanning the working and lower middle classes. His paternal grandfather was a mill-hand, and treasurer of the local Co-op who had managed to send his son to train as a teacher. His mother, who died when Jack was an infant, came from a ‘back o’t’ mill’ background, and his stepmother started out as a shop-girl. There undoubtedly were ‘grandparents and uncles and aunts who still lived in the wretched little “back-to-back” houses in the long, dark streets behind the mills’.4 Priestley made no bones about being himself a member of the Edwardian lower middle class, son of an elementary-school headmaster, living neither ‘back o’t’ mill’ nor in the ‘wilderness of suburban Drives and Groves’ beyond the town but in Saltburn Place, among the respectable terraced houses off Toller Lane, a short tram-ride from the town centre.5 In Bradford, as an official guidebook remarked in 1917, ‘the residential districts … possess in a peculiar degree the characteristics of a mingling of the social grades’, so much so that, despite the presence of wealthy businessmen, ill-health and overcrowding spread fairly evenly through the town, and in 1896 every ward in the borough was reported to have at least 40 per cent of back-to-back houses.6 So despite its bay windows, trees in the street, shopkeepers living next door and views across still undeveloped fields, Saltburn Place was not far from working-class housing, mills and factories, or from some of the town's largest and most opulent suburban villas. ‘I had grown up with strikes’, Priestley said, ‘played football and gone soldiering with warehouse lads and wool-combers’ and dyers’ labourers, miners and foundry men and fitters’, and indeed the huge Manningham Mills, site of the bitter and violent strike of 1891 which helped give birth to the Independent Labour Party the following year, was only half a mile from Priestley's childhood home.7
Bradford, then, was the very paradigm of nineteenth-century industrial England. But did Priestley like this England? Not if we are to judge by his bitter remarks at the end of English Journey:
It had found a green and pleasant land and had left a wilderness of dirty bricks. It had blackened fields, poisoned rivers, ravaged the earth, and sown filth and ugliness with a lavish hand … I felt like calling back a few of these sturdy individualists simply to rub their noses in the nasty mess they had made. Who gave them leave to turn this island into their ashpit? … What you see just looks like a debauchery of cynical greed.8
This is the England of slag-heaps and mill chimneys and doss-houses, back-to-back slums and cindery waste-grounds, and ‘grim, fortress-like cities’. It would be easy to set this heartfelt disgust alongside some of Priestley's affectionate praise for the English countryside and conclude (p.37) that he had trodden a path familiar enough among those who rejected industrial capitalism and all its works, spurning his northern industrial origins and opting for an idealised, rural ‘Deep England’.
Any such conclusion would be profoundly mistaken. Lurking in Priestley's long catalogue of nineteenth-century detritus we also find Town Halls and Mechanics’ Institutes, Literary and Philosophical Societies, pier pavilions, fried-fish shops and chapels – things which speak of something more positive: a distinctive way of life, a culture.9 Indeed, even as he denounces the ‘sooty, dismal little towns’, Priestley lists rather more of their positive features than negative ones. If people have been compelled to live ‘like black-beetles at the back of a disused kitchen stove’, they have made a life there which embodies something of value – of greater value, in some ways, than the more comfortable one which succeeded it. We are reminded of Eric Hobsbawm's words about the ‘traditional’ working-class culture which was consolidating itself from the 1870s onwards: ‘It was neither a very good nor a very rich life, but it was probably the first kind of life since the industrial revolution which provided a firm lodging for the British working class within industrial society.’10 In fact, if Priestley idealises anything about the English past, it is not some lost rural Arcadia – or even, as some might expect, the struggles of the working class – but its urban civilisation: Bradford's robust and democratic culture which he conjures up from memory and imagination.
From this culture Priestley took with him two profound ideological influences: socialism and Dissent. ‘I was brought up among socialists,’ he reminds us, ‘not the embittered rebels of today, but the gentle, hopeful theorists of thirty or forty years ago.’11 His father Jonathan (‘both a better and happier man than I’) was an elementary teacher, in due course a head-master, and it was in his Green Lane School that the first school meals in Bradford, and possibly the country, were provided.12 As a ‘gentle, hopeful’ kind of socialist, ‘he did not want too much himself and hated to see others have too little’, believed with H. G. Wells that ‘we could educate ourselves out of muddle and wretchedness … into the sunlight forever’, to which end he made speeches and sat on committees, filling his house with friends and colleagues, warm in argument over pipes and hot toddy.13 As for Bradford itself, Priestley asserted, with pardonable exaggeration, that it was considered ‘the most progressive place in the United Kingdom’.14 Arriving in the town in 1893, the socialist and educational reformer Margaret McMillan had found ‘Social Democratic Federationers … Swedenborgians … old Chartist, Secularists’, as well as the newly formed Independent Labour Party.15 Bradford was one of the earliest cities in which the Labour movement became truly independent from liberalism as a political and ideological force. The ILP was founded in Bradford and throve there, partly because of the industrial conflicts in the woollen industry, partly because of the dominance of a reactionary local Liberal Party run by (p.38) wealthy local Nonconformist employers such as Alfred Illingworth, who believed in financial retrenchment and, unlike Liberals elsewhere, made few concessions to working-class interests.16 We have already encountered the local ILP paper, the Bradford Pioneer, where the young Priestley saw his first published work. From the 1880s, the cross-class alliance between middle-class liberals, radicals, Nonconformists and trade unionists which the Gladstonian Liberal Party represented was breaking down in Bradford, leading to a three-party politics in which ILP candidates polled strongly and won council seats. When Labour won the Bradford West parliamentary seat in 1906, a year of Lib-Lab alliances up and down the country, the successful candidate, Fred Jowett, unlike most of his colleagues, had to defeat a Liberal as well as a Conservative opponent. Years later Priestley wrote a Preface to Jowett's biography in which he demonstrated his own deep affinity to Bradford and its politics.17
Bradford was not only one of the most socialist, but one of the most Dissenting cities in the country. The 1851 religious census showed almost two-thirds of its worshippers attending Nonconformist chapels, and, although chapel-going had declined by Priestley's time, it was still the dominant religious tradition, and a vital part of Priestley's heritage.18 Jonathan was an active member of Westgate Baptist Chapel, which was not only a place of worship but the ‘great focal point’ of the community.19 Nonconformity was still a highly politicised culture, with an inbuilt inclination towards Liberalism, radicalism, and now socialism, and a tradition of democracy and popular activism. For men like Jonathan Priestley politics, religion and community could not be separated. As W. Haslam Mills, who came from a similar background in Ashton-under-Lyne, wrote, ‘Public prayer with us took the form of a spirited and highly topical review of the field of contemporary events, all the more interesting because it was so allusive and oblique … It was understood that God had read the Manchester Guardian that morning.’20 Or as Priestley put it, ‘they told Him what they expected from Him and more than hinted that He must attend to His work’. More to young Jack's taste than the interminable prayers and sermons were the weekdays when the Sunday School classrooms ‘crackled or hummed with life … sewing meetings, gymnastic classes for the young men, teas-and-concerts, lantern lectures, conjuring entertainments, and – best of all, the bazaars, which kept people busy for weeks and weeks and were then uproarious affairs for three or four nights’.21 Writing in 1939, when organised religion seemed in terminal decline, he regretted – ‘apart from all questions of belief’ – the disappearance of this kind of church and chapel activity from people's lives, leaving them with a sense of detachment and loneliness.22 Despite his unbelief, something of Westgate Chapel rubbed off on Priestley, in the form of a deep attachment to the idea of community, as well as an underlying, though often well-hidden, spirituality.
(p.39) ‘All one lot of folk’
For Priestley socialism and dissent were part and parcel of a rich, democratic and self-sufficient cultural life, which is powerfully recreated in his novel Bright Day (1946).23 The novel's narrator, Gregory Dawson, is in the 1940s a successful Hollywood scriptwriter. A familiar face and a piece of music in a hotel dining-room bring flooding back memories of his youth in ‘Bruddersford’, and a fragile Edwardian world doomed both by the War and by more private catastrophes. Only by reconciling himself to this past, in a narrative which moves between Edwardian Bruddersford and the film industry of the 1940s, can Dawson resolve the impasse in his present life and face his future. Although Dawson has much in common with Priestley himself, Bright Day is more than just a slice of fictionalised autobiography. It is a novel about time and memory, two of Priestley's recurring preoccupations, and about cultural change: the two contrasting cultural worlds, divided by the Great War, in which Dawson (like Priestley) has lived, and which he must attempt in some way to reconcile and exorcise through the act of remembering. Priestley the social-democratic reformer is the familiar figure with which Bright Day ends, recouping Edwardian optimism in the spirit of 1945, but the novel merges this figure with Priestley the Jungian mystic, reminding us that it is memory, and the ever-present past of his lost Arcadia, which is the foundation stone of his social critique. It is this bringing together of Priestley's two sides which makes Bright Day arguably his most accomplished novel – and, as of 1962 at any rate, Priestley's own favourite.24
The novel's Bruddersford scenes evoke a rich cultural world of Free Libraries, Playgoers’ Societies, Hallé Orchestra concerts in the Gladstone Hall, pantomime at the Theatre Royal and the ‘brilliant Indian Summer of a popular art’ at the Imperial Music Hall25 – a culture inhabited by a spectrum of Bruddersford society from the enchanting but doomed middle-class Alington family to down-to earth Yorkshiremen in the nether reaches of the wool trade. It is a deceptively cosmopolitan world, where modest employees regularly journey to the other side of the globe to buy and sell wool (Priestley himself went as a teenager to Belgium, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Germany), and where a Londoner was a stranger sight than a German.26 It is a world in which an uncouth insurance salesman turns out to be a virtuoso classical pianist, and a man speaking broad Yorkshire gives up an office job in the wool trade to live in a cottage on the moors and paint ‘delicate and precise’ landscapes ‘in the grand old tradition of the English water-colour’.27 Socialism here means not class warfare but, in the words of the socialist Councillor Knott, ‘a chance for workin’ folk to enjoy life the right way – to see their families growin’ up fine and strong – to meet their friends and ’ave a talk and a laugh together – to walk over the moors at the week-end – to read some books worth (p.40) reading – to go to a theatre or to listen to some music. Like John [Alington] and ’is family do ’ere …’28
It is also, as we notice after a while, a world from which the manual working class is absent. All Bright Day's down-to earth broad Yorkshiremen seem to be clerks, warehousemen, buyers, salesmen, small shopkeepers, and the middle-class ones merchants; there is not a Trade Unionist, a factory hand – or even a mill-owner – in sight. In other novels, the cultural life of Priestley's working-class characters – Jess Oakroyd in The Good Companions, or Charlie Habble in Wonder Hero – revolves around football, the pub and the Sunday scandal-sheet: no English water-colours or César Franck sonatas for them – or at least, not until Councillor Knott's socialist utopia comes about.
This absence is consistent with Priestley's political language, which speaks very little of class, much more of people, community and nation.29 He regarded himself as ‘a classless sort of man, whose work does not represent the outlook of any particular class’, and he regarded privilege as a greater social evil than material inequality.30 Not that he was unaware of class in the economic sense: he bitterly denounced poverty, exploitation and the gulf between rich and poor, and was hardly unaware of the poor housing conditions and industrial conflicts in his native city. But even bosses, he told a Newcastle Communist, could be regarded as prisoners of the system, ‘honestly trying to do their duty’.31 When he described Edwardian Bradford as almost ‘a classless society’, he was using class in cultural, not economic terms, just as, when he described it as democratic, he passed over the fact that most of its inhabitants could not vote. For him, Bradford was very nearly classless because although ‘a few were rich, and a great many were very poor … they were all one lot of folk, and Jack not only thought himself as good as his master but very often told him so’.32 There are various reasons why, Priestley felt, ‘the usual English class-consciousness did not thrive in Bradford’.
The upper class was not represented there at all; so without an apex the social pyramid was not a firm structure. Manners were heartily democratic; gamblers on the wool market who suddenly made fortunes were still called Sam or Joe by characters who wore cloth caps and mufflers; they had to buy a title and acquire a mansion well away from Bradford to find deferential treatment … Of course there were wide differences in what people could earn and spend, but these existed in an atmosphere of social democracy, familiar enough in America but rather rare in Edwardian England. Finally, in a city like this in the industrial North there was little of the class demarcation by accent.33
This last point about accent is crucial, as is the passing reference to America: it is not just that the employers lived in the town and were part of its culture, but they spoke its language too, a language shared with those they employed, and not with the City or the country house. This (p.41) may not have been a classless society, Priestley concluded, but it was nearer to one than any southerner can imagine; and when in later life he discovered the rest of the English class structure, ‘with all its tangle of superiorities and inferiorities’, his response was, and remained, ‘bewildered … half-amused, half-indignant’.34
Priestley was to project his vision of Bradford on to the nation. The ideal England he would evoke in wartime was not some proletarian paradise but ‘all one lot of folk’ writ large. In the industrial north, this populist radicalism had deep ideological roots. In Visions of the People (1991) Patrick Joyce has argued that underlying the social identity of the nineteenth-century industrial districts was a radical populist tradition ‘conceiving of the true England as the industrial north in struggle with Privilege’.35 The subject of this ‘master narrative’ is the destiny of the nation itself, bound up with that of ‘the “true people” of England, those who have been excluded from their birthright. England and Providence became identified with the history, character and fate of “the people”, and in many respects “the people” itself becomes the subject of the narrative, its travail forming the stuff of legend.’ The discourse of radical populism can become a vehicle for class consciousness, and some may feel this was its proper line of development. But the preferred reading is of a broader, more inclusive social identity, which is at the same time radical. ‘The likes of shopkeepers, teachers, employers and so on would have defined themselves, and been accepted, as part of the people.’36 So it is with Priestley: the people – replete with ‘strength, dignity and fine associations’, and bound together by cultural rather than economic ties – are the point of reference, and the significant struggle is not so much between capital and labour – about which Priestley was always sceptical – as between the ‘productive’ and the ‘unproductive’ classes, with resonances in nineteenth-century liberalism that echo from John Stuart Mill's ‘they grow rich as it were in their sleep’ of 1848 to Joseph Chamberlain's ‘they toil not neither do they spin’ of 1885.37 In the words of Walt Whitman, which Priestley was to quote during the War, ‘everything comes out of the people’, and ‘we are all the people, so long as we are prepared to consider ourselves the people’.38
Priestley and socialism
Priestley certainly regarded himself as a socialist. ‘A belief in some form of socialism’, said Priestley, ‘is not with me, as it is with many persons, an act of rebellion, but almost something belonging to tradition and filial piety.’39 But his socialism owed little to class-consciousness, and even less to a belief in the benign power of the state. ‘The root objection to Capitalism’, he wrote, ‘is that its values are all wrong, inhuman.’40 Such (p.42) ‘ethical socialism’ has long been a powerful current in the British left. As the ILP's historian has pointed out, the party's programme was always apt to stress community rather than class, and ethical sympathies before class interests.41 Criticising the ‘workerist’ political strategy of some on the left, such as Fred Jowett, Priestley rejected the notion that ‘socialism would be created solely by a working-class movement’.42 The new Jerusalem would never be built under trade union rules, because unions are about making the best bargain within the existing system, not building a better one: they would be more inclined to pop in after the job had started to check that the wages and hours were all right. A true revolution would require creativity, gusto and commitment, not regulated hours and wages, and, for this, wider support than the working class and its organisations would be needed.43 Moreover, it was from his own lower middle class, despite their obsession with respectability, and from the cultured minority of the upper middle class, that the most progressive ideas came.44 The left especially needed the support of ‘highly-trained technicians’ who had a vision of a better society, and the enthusiasm and skill to build it.45 If Fred Jowett had lived to see the 1945 election, Priestley suggested, he might have realised that only with such support could socialism advance.46 But despite the rhetoric of Jowett and others, British socialism has never been based solely on the working class; middle-class recruits like Priestley's father, inspired by a public service ethic, have always played a vital role, believing, said his son, that ‘there were more and more people like himself coming into the world, people who could be trusted to do their duty by the public that employed him, who did not need to be threatened with starvation or inspired by greed’.47
It is partly because of the strength of this public service ethic that socialism has invariably been seen as operating through the state. Here Priestley parted company with his father, who ‘believed not only in government for the people by the people but also in production … by the people for the people’, and therefore could have happily tolerated living in a collectivist state.48 Young Jack had been inclined to share this view: once everything was state-run, ‘everybody would be knocking off about three o’clock, ready for folk-dancing, wood-carving, lectures on William Morris’.49 In later life he changed his mind, leaning, he admitted, to the ‘wilful individualism’ of the writer, ‘I set more store by independent lines of thought and by individual experiments in living’ (a favourite Priestley phrase) than his father had done. There was, he acknowledged, an internal conflict between individualism and collectivism. ‘By temperament, though not by conviction, I am strongly individualist, independent, perhaps a trifle wayward. In practice, though not in theory, I hate the herd instinct.’50 As he described it in a 1935 radio talk, his ideal society was one with a minimal state, existing only to provide the basic necessities of life. Beyond this, work would be voluntary and motivated only by individual (p.43) satisfaction and pleasing one's neighbours: no more financiers or politicians, no more class exploitation, bureaucratic oppression or mystical patriotism.51 This is really a kind of anarchism – and not a very practical kind at that – but it reveals Priestley's deep belief in the individual creativity that lies within everyone – those fiddlers and water-colourists in Bright Day – if only it were allowed to flourish.52
Like a true radical, Priestley hated money-jugglers and rentiers, and valued people with skill and competence, people who made things, including ideas, relishing their grasp of the minutiae of the wool trade, electricity or engineering, and regarding it as the greatest crime when they are denied the opportunity of exercising their skills. As a writer, he regarded himself less as an artist than an artisan, a master of the technical problems of writing rather than one specially inspired by the muse: ‘writers are not persons with the key to some magical backstairs, but are simply people who write’.53 In the novel Wonder Hero we meet a character who personifies the productive/unproductive divide: Sir Edward Catterbird, a former civil engineer who has discovered a talent for financial manipulation and become wealthy. ‘You can’t make a big fortune by handling things or ideas, you can only do it by manipulating money, by usury and gambling’, but ‘there's a curse on usury and gambling, on all money-spinning’. Sir Edward ends up losing his mind; he should have stuck to building bridges.
If Priestley rejected both the class struggle and financial capitalism, he was equally resistant to the attractions of communism and the Soviet system. Although our dominant image of ‘committed’ writing in the 1930s comes from the communist-leaning ‘Auden Group’, Priestley, as we have already seen, was inclined to be dismissive of public-school Marxists, whose rhetoric of ‘the masses’ he considered dehumanising: ‘any man who seriously considers himself one of the “masses” should go and put an end to his little insect existence’.54 The Soviet Union no doubt had greater material equality, but, he suspected, this came at the cost of excessive privilege for the functionaries of party and state.55 Moreover, he was not unaware that ‘they have a habit there of liquidating persons, indeed, whole classes of persons, almost masses’.56 His fictional communists – Kibworth in Wonder Hero, Blair in They Walk in the City – as well as Bob, a real one, in English Journey – are sympathetically drawn, but narrow, naive and unimaginative, their politics an understandable but mistaken response to social evils, and wilfully or stupidly blind to the real nature of the Soviet Union.57
Bright Day gets its title from a line in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: ‘It is the bright day that brings forth the adder’. The Nixeys’ arrival in (p.44) Bruddersford announces the doom not just of John Alington's firm and family but of a whole bright world. If pastoral is about a past state of peace and harmony, and a simpler, more authentic life, then Priestley's account of provincial culture before the Great War could be called an urban pastoral. And as with all pastorals, the world it yearns for is lost, and perhaps never existed. Priestley left Bradford when he joined the army at the age of twenty in 1914, and never settled back there again. For him, as for many of his generation, the war was a ‘smoking canyon’ which separated him from his youth: especially as, while he enlisted early on, most of his boyhood friends joined up later, in the Bradford ‘Pals’ Battalion, and were massacred on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, ‘killed by greed and muddle and monstrous cross-purposes, by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs, by diplomats working underground like monocled moles, by journalists wanting a good story, by hysterical women waving flags, by grumbling debenture-holders, by strong silent be-ribonned asses, by fear or apathy or downright lack of imagination’.58 When he wrote these words he was not yet forty, but ‘sometimes I feel like a very old man … I have many vivid dreams, and the dead move casually through them’.59 Only when he was in his late sixties could he bring himself to write directly of his wartime experiences, to bridge the gap between before and after.
After the War, ‘we had to move into a world largely alien to the English temperament’.
The [Edwardian] age somehow created an atmosphere in which English genius, talent, generosity of mind, could flourish … an atmosphere of hopeful debate which never survived the great War … And something alien, belonging in a new spirit – harshly derisive, intolerant, arrogant, ultimately dehumanising – already breaking through from 1910 onwards, could still be softened, intuitively transmuted, by the English temperament … .There is illusion here, of course, but it is not all a cheat: something did go, something was lost.60
Even so, Priestley never fully bought into what Samuel Hynes has called ‘The Myth of the War’, ‘that the world before the war was a lost Eden … [and] that the world after the war was a ruined place, where dishonourable forces had triumphed’.61 He was fully aware of the deficiencies of the old society: a class system that was designed to keep the common people in their place, with a ‘shallow, self-indulgent, stupid’ ruling class, and a working class not much better, all in thrall to an arrogant and boastful imperialism.62 What had gone wrong since the war was a closing down of possibilities rather than the destruction of a lost Eden. This ‘hopeful debate’ is what Priestley meant when he said that Britain had been closer to true democracy in 1912 than it was in 1939, and that, if the war had not happened, ‘it is certain that I should be writing, if at all, about another and better England’. After 1918, ‘the ranks of privileged (p.45) persons closed up and common people had to keep their distance’.63 But there must have been something rotten at the heart of the old society, or else there would not have been a war. ‘I believe that many of us, all young, had a feeling, never put into words, that a time was running out, that something was coming to an end.’64
The same feeling informs two of Priestley's best-known plays, which, far from wallowing in nostalgia, reveal the defects of Edwardian society, and show that it was those internal problems, not just the War, which ended the illusion of a golden age. An Inspector Calls, set in 1912, was written in 1945–46, and was very much of that moment, and so will be discussed in a later chapter. When We Are Married (1938), one of Priestley's best-loved and most-performed plays, is at one level a knockabout Yorkshire farce, complete with drunken photographer (played in several performances by Priestley himself) and a knowing, disrespectful housemaid straight out of the Figaro tradition. Set in 1908, it concerns three middle-aged couples from the aldermanic ruling elite of a Yorkshire town similar to Bradford, who gather to celebrate their joint silver wedding, only to discover that they were never properly married in the first place. Priestley presented it as a ‘Yorkshire Farcical Comedy’, which he enjoyed writing because he could plunder his memories of Bradford life and manners.65 But, as Judith Cook wisely observes, ‘Priestley comedies are purposeful’.66 What we see here, should we choose to look beneath the broad comedy, and the affectionately drawn complacent pomposity of the characters, is respectable post-Victorian society rotting in its very core, the institution of marriage itself.
Like Bright Day, Lost Empires, published in 1965, has a Bruddersfordian as its main character, but is set in a darker version of the rootless theatrical world of The Good Companions. Lost Empires, which Priestley described as a symbolic rather than a sentimental narrative, is set in the months leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914, and the ‘Empires’ of the title could be the Edwardian political world or the variety theatres which bore that name – both of them doomed.67 Richard Herncastle takes a job as assistant to his uncle, who is a successful illusionist on the variety stage. The story follows them on their tours up to the outbreak of war, when Richard announces his intention to enlist, and Uncle Nick, disgusted, goes off to America to make a fortune in munitions. For Priestley, music-hall artistes stand for a lost world of authentic popular culture, and stage magicians, paradoxically, stand for honesty – honest deceit. ‘Doctors and lawyers and politicians and financiers. What are they doing half their time? Tricks – pulling the rabbit out of the hat – sawing the lady in two – asking you to watch their right hands while their left hands are making your money disappear – and not telling you anything about it. We’re honest. We tell you.’ So says the conjurer Alf in They Walk in the City.68 So too says Uncle Nick: ‘I’m an honest illusionist … (p.46) not like these big illusionists in Westminster, Whitehall and the City, expensive bloody hypocrites’.69 His illusions work by misdirecting the audience's attention, but Uncle Nick's attention does not stray: ‘I earn a living by deceiving other people, but I don't have to deceive myself’, he declares, when denouncing the sentimental rituals of Christmas.70 The tricks with flags which he introduces into his act when war finally comes are nothing more than ‘children's party conjuring’, the enthusiasm of the audience a sign that we are headed for the madhouse.71 So the brutal but honest Uncle Nick is the one who can see things coming: he knows there will be war, that it will be bloodier than people think, that it will be no good for old Europe, and that America will be the place to be. But his immunity to deception also leaves him deaf to ‘the magical element in life … all the enchantments of love and art’.72
Some, at least, of this symbolism is to do with society in 1914 and its imminent destruction, not just by war but by forces from within. Through the novel's intricate plot of suicide, murder and doomed love, the dark sense of foreboding builds up, more and more sinister characters and events enter the scene. The central figure of the illusionist, Uncle Nick, is the one who can see where things are headed, but he has paid the price in lost enchantment; meanwhile, everyone else, like his audience, takes pleasure in having their attention directed elsewhere.
Priestley was quite right to say that there was much more than nostalgia in his elegiac accounts of the Edwardian age.73 What he took away from Edwardian Bradford was a sense of society, of history, of politics, which lay fallow for a while, but from the end of the 1920s, when he found fame and a public platform, became increasingly important. We must not forget that he had got his start as a writer in the socialist Bradford Pioneer, nor that, to the bafflement of his literary biographers, he had switched direction at Cambridge from English to Modern History and Political Science.74 From the early 1930s, his novels, as well as his non-fiction, became increasingly, though not exclusively, vehicles for his social concerns: society, as he later said, should be the main character in the modern novel.75 The broad historical narrative which underlies much of this social and political critique is very much that of Joyce's provincial radicals. It is a narrative of local and regional autonomy superseded by the dominance of London, and by the kind of capitalism for which London stands: financial as opposed to productive capitalism, ‘this money-lending England’, as he put it in English Journey.76 It is a story, ultimately, of globalisation, in which the national is superseded by the blandly international, a phenomenon which he observed with some acuity in its early stages. But it is also a story of solidly democratic, cross-class communities betrayed by the greed and social ambition of their leaders; a national ruling class surviving well past its usefulness; a people whose attention was increasingly diverted by shallow amusements and hollow (p.47) consumerism. ‘Their lives were narrow,’ he says of the Edwardian working class, ‘but somehow they contrived to bring to them a great deal of zest, humour, innocent excitement.’77 As one of his characters in They Walk in the City, himself a former music-hall performer, laments, ‘That war did something. It's never been the same since. There isn’t the fun and the easiness and the character. Too many machines. Too much of this American stuff.’78 All these motifs we will encounter in the rest of this chapter, and the rest of the book, as we chart the development of Priestley's social and political engagement in the 1930s.
We begin with a book which, for most readers, is anything but a political tract – and so much the better, most of them would say. The Good Companions, Priestley said, was a fairytale, albeit set against a realistic backdrop.79 This is not entirely true, or fair to the book. It contains fairytale events, and happy if not fairytale endings, and it has no overt social or political axe to grind. But the starting-point of the book is real enough for its time: each of its three main characters has suffered in some way the dislocations of the age. Jess Oakroyd, the Bruddersford working man, has lost his job, his favourite daughter and now he thinks – mistakenly – his reputation. Miss Trant, thirty-seven, and possibly ‘on the shelf after spending fifteen years looking after her father, who has now died, has let the family home, sold its contents and driven off into the distance in search of the rest of her life. Inigo Jollifant, a drifting young Cambridge graduate, trying to be a writer but better at playing the piano, has just been dismissed from his job at a very minor prep school, somewhat like Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. Only when the three fortuitously link up with each other, and with the failing concert party the Dinky Doos, can they become functioning members of a community again – albeit a temporary, mobile and often fractious one. Each is able to find a way of being useful to that community, and re-establishes within it the meaningful social relationships which have eluded him or her in normal life. In the end the touring concert party becomes their route back into settled life; but for each of them it is a very different life from the one they left behind. As for happy endings, only Miss Trant, who discovers an old flame and gets married, could be said to achieve one unequivocally. Inigo doesn’t get the girl, and Jess, while he is reunited with his daughter, has to emigrate to Canada and leave his beloved Bruddersford United behind.
But let us not be too snooty about happy endings, or about the novel's many coincidences: they come with the picaresque genre, and, in any case, sad ones would not change the novel's message much. Like many mainstream (p.48) 1920s novels, The Good Companions deals with social and cultural dislocation and its effect on the individual. The Great War is not mentioned: a singular fact, because everybody in the book must have been touched by it in some way. But this absence reflects Priestley's oblique approach to the War and his own experiences in it, which he did not deal with directly in print until after 1945. In any case, the War was in many ways a symbol of wider and deeper disruptions which were under way before war broke out. A typical, but very different, novel of the 1920s which dealt with these individual experiences of loss and disruption is Warwick Deeping's best-selling Sorrell and Son (1925).80 In this novel an ex-army officer down on his luck, unemployed and abandoned by his unfaithful wife, engages in an intensely individualistic struggle to carve out a future for himself and his son. Sorrell and Son restates Victorian middle-class values of personal responsibility and social and sexual hierarchy almost to the point of parody, and certainly beyond that of plausibility, but it is not difficult to see its appeal to middle-class readers who were anxious about modernity. The war was the least of their worries: they also had to contend with anxieties about the rise of Labour, the insubordination of the working class, the emancipation of women, the rise of modernism and the questioning of hitherto-accepted social and moral values.
Sorrell and Son seems to confirm Bracco's view that the role of best-sellers in the 1920s was to combat these dangers, ‘to provide reassuring explanations of the present reality, and to counteract the disturbing developments of the modern world by re-asserting well-established values and attitudes’ by upholding traditional attitudes and values in a modern context, providing their readers with a reassuring sense of continuity with the past.81 Many of these readers came from the lower middle class of white-collar clerical and administrative workers, sales people, small businessmen, minor professionals, who had been growing in numbers since the 1870s. This group had never experienced stability: status anxiety was endemic in them, an unavoidable consequence of their ‘betwixt and between’ position in society.82 As with Priestley's father, their social detachment and extended education could make them natural recruits for socialism (one thinks of H. G. Wells) – or alternatively, they could swing the other way, their anxieties expressed in fear of the mob, of the working class, of immigrants, emancipated women, intellectuals, making them the Daily Mail and Daily Express readers of the 1920s and 1930s, and the mainstay of the Conservative supremacy of those years. They had been satirised by the Grossmith brothers in Diary of a Nobody, and their fears had been vividly described by the Liberal journalist Charles Masterman in 1911:
He has difficulty with the plumber in jerry-built houses needing continuous patching and mending. His wife is harassed by the indifference or insolence (p.49) of the domestic servant … He would never be surprised to find the crowd behind the red flag, surging up his little pleasant pathways, tearing down the railings, trampling the little garden.83
The Good Companions addresses the issue of dislocation, but it does so in a completely different way, and with the opposite political implications, from Deeping's novel. Dislocation is not blamed on the stock bogeymen of lower middle-class nightmares and the Daily Mail, but comes in some obscure way out of the uncertainties of the age. The ‘happy endings’ do not offer the reassurance that everything can still be the same as it was in 1900, rather that people can move on; nor does this happen through the fiercely individualistic striving of Sorrell. Instead, they find a microcosmic community to belong to, and make themselves useful in it. In a short piece written in his eightieth year Priestley acknowledged that what he had really always wanted was ‘to be a member of a small intimate community of persons who, though individually they may have separate strong interests … happily share a great deal of common ground’.84 In Bright Day the jaded and bitter screenwriter Gregory Dawson is rejuvenated when he throws in his lot with a new independent film group, recreating the sense of being part of just such a small, creative community which he had experienced, years earlier, with the Alington family – itself modelled on families and groups whose inner life Priestley had envied in his Bradford youth.85 This recognition of interdependence between the individual and the collective, and the creation, or re-creation of community, whether on this face-to-face scale or at the level of a town or even the nation, became an increasingly powerful theme in Priestley's writing, paving the way towards his popular wartime collectivism. It makes The Good Companions something more than the mere ‘fairytale’ of Priestley's apologia.
The eponymous concert party of The Good Companions is a travelling, rootless community. Postwar England is no longer a nation in which you have a fixed social and geographical place, like Arnold Bennett's Five Towns, but a shifting backdrop to your search for one, revealed in the book through a series of local vignettes – some cosy, some not, like the depressed and depressing failed industrial town of Tewborough, depicted in the language of dereliction that will be mobilised again for English Journey.86 Travel became part of the Priestley repertoire: already in 1932 the London and North Eastern Railway was promising to ‘bring you to Priestley's England’.87 In March 1929, The Good Companions written but not yet published, Priestley began a series for the Sunday Dispatch entitled ‘I Want to Know’ in which he travelled around Britain, as his characters had done, and reported on what he had seen: the series may even have been a by-product of his research for the novel. But what he ‘wanted to know’ was whether Nottingham really was ‘crammed with pretty girls’, and whether Wigan really did have a pier. He may have (p.50) beaten Orwell to the punch with his discovery that Wigan ‘has an undoubted flair for the ugly’, but the tone of the articles is bland and joky, and they say little of the problems that places like Wigan were already experiencing in the late 1920s.88 Nevertheless, ‘I Want to Know’ marked a significant shift from essays and sketches towards the reportage which would come to dominate his writing later in the 1930s.
But for the time being it was the novels which led the way into a deeper social critique. When The Good Companions made him famous, Priestley was already working on his next book, Angel Pavement, published in the summer of 1930.89 By now, the trade depression was deepening and turning into the Slump, and this book is altogether a more gritty affair than its predecessor, implying far more strongly ‘all the social criticism directly stated in my later non-fiction books’.90 Once again, rootlessness and insecurity are key themes. Angel Pavement concerns the impact on a small City of London firm, and those who work for it, of a crooked adventurer, Golspie, who arrives in London from nowhere in particular, and in the space of a few months comes to dominate and reinvigorate the firm, and then robs and ruins it, departing at the end of the story to South America. While The Good Companions is a novel of escape, for the characters in Angel Pavement there is no escape: as Priestley put it, ‘They are victims of circumstance and they have little to enjoy but the bitter though not unrefreshing brew that a sense of irony can offer’.91 At the end they all lose their jobs, and, although one way or another most of them have learned something from the experience, this could not be described as a happy ending, especially in 1930 with unemployment rising, and ‘boys … lining up in their hundreds for the chance of a mere beginning at ten shillings a week’.92 In contrast to The Good Companions which was far too cheerful for sophisticated tastes, Angel Pavement was criticised by some for its negativity.93 Although it contains comic passages and much Priestleian wit, it is difficult to see how George Orwell, still writing as Eric Blair, and perhaps not yet attuned to the book's social critique, could describe this story of wrecked lives as ‘genuinely gay and pleasant’, and mainly intended to set forth ‘the romance of London’.94 Whether it lacked beauty, profundity and humour, as Orwell judged, may be open to debate; his review was for the highbrow Adelphi, and no doubt told the readers what they wanted to hear: as Orwell's biographer notes, ‘Priestley-baiting was a popular literary parlour-game’ in such circles.95
The characters who work at Twigg and Dersingham are depicted in the round, some fully equipped with homes, families, friends, pastimes, and others who lack these things feeling their absence. In other words, although scattered about London's residential districts, they are rooted, or want to be. Golspie, on the other hand, is rootless: he has a daughter but no wife is mentioned, and we are told nothing of his past: ‘I don’t live anywhere. That's me’, he declares ‘with a kind of grim relish’ on arriving (p.51) in London, like a buccaneer sailing into harbour.96 Like the Nixeys, who disrupt the lives and business of the gentle and decent Alingtons in Bright Day, Golspie represents the ‘rootless, parasitic and acquisitive’ forms of late capitalism, which enter the scene before 1914 as a ‘tiny fifth column’ but by 1946 would have become a ‘familiar army of occupation’.97 By contrast Twigg and Dersingham, dealers in furniture inlays and veneers, are, like John Alington, representative of an older, fixed and located form of capitalism, with a stable relationship with their workers and their customers, but vulnerable to being looted by the money-juggling, predatory forces that are now loose in the world. But those veneers in which Twigg and Dersingham deal are more than a little symbolic. Beneath the surface the firm and the system it represents – though not its ordinary employees – are in a bad way, and bear some responsibility for their own vulnerability. Dersingham, the firm's owner, is the typical image of gentlemanly ineptitude – an ex-army officer from a second-rate public school, who inherited the business from his uncle, and is unable to take decisions or do anything at the denouement other than deny responsibility for what has happened – denying even that his cashier, Smeeth (a man far more dedicated to the firm) has warned him against Golspie. ‘He thinks he's a gentleman amusing himself’, says Golspie, ‘Too many of his sort in the City here’.98 Dersingham may deserve to lose out, but do Smeeth and the others? On his way home after losing his job, Smeeth reflects bitterly not on the guilty individuals but on the system: ‘You go on for years and years building up a position for yourself until at last you have a place of your own, a little world of your own … if this is what could happen at any minute? My God – what was the good of it all?’ ‘Not good enough,’ he repeats to himself, ‘not good enough.’99
In Sorrell and Son all problems and their solutions are seen as individual. The system is unchallengeable, because invisible: carping about it is for Bolsheviks and weaklings, you have to get on with your life. The characters in Angel Pavement, the ordinary people who are at the heart of the book, are individuals, and no doubt they will do their best to get on with their lives as individuals must. But the firm is a microcosm of the nation: between inept rulers and predatory speculators, ordinary people have to take their chances. Priestley is quite clear where the blame lies: not in petty crooks like Golspie but in the system that opens the way for the Golspies and Nixeys. It is not capitalism as such that is the problem but capitalism gone wrong – as he was to write at the other end of the 1930s, ‘favouring England the money-lender, the receiver of interest from all parts of the world, at the expense of the other England, the producer, the manufacturer, trader’. This tendency was not only ‘against the general happiness of the English people’ but was ‘partly responsible for the present lethargic and uncreative mood of the country’.100 ‘Not good enough’, as Smeeth would say. Priestley's voice, if not Smeeth's, is that of industrial radicalism: (p.52) the productive classes against the unproductive, an ideal of settled communities rooted in making and trading, set against the fluidity and insecurity of internationalised financial capitalism, with a hint of anti-imperialism thrown in. Angel Pavement is not a work of political or economic analysis, and it proposes no solution to the problems it highlights, but, by acknowledging their existence, and suggesting that things could be otherwise, it sets itself apart from the supposed reassuring conservatism of the stereotypical ‘middlebrow’ novel. It announces Priestley's engagement with the social and political issues of his time, which was to continue for the rest of his life.
Angel Pavement points the way towards the central work of Priestley's 1930s, and arguably of his whole career: English Journey (1934), a book which will continue to resonate through this study, especially in the next two chapters, for what it has to say about national identity and the experience of modernity. Here I will look at it chiefly as one of the cluster of works in which Priestley responded to the deepening social, economic and political crisis of the 1930s. But first we need to establish what kind of book it was.
Priestley's first non-fiction, non-literary book (unless we count essay collections) was promoted as a major publishing event, just as if it was his latest novel. The Bookseller reported a publicity campaign of ‘unprecedented scale’ in advance of the book's publication in April 1934, including ‘what must be a record advertisement display for any single book’ in the Sunday papers, featuring quotes from the provincial newspapers, who had already responded to the book's local and regional appeal with extensive coverage – in the case of the Birmingham Gazette, for example, a leader, a feature article and a news column on the day of publication.101 English Journey rose almost immediately to the top of the Bookseller's best-seller list (overtaking P. G. Wodehouse's Thank You Jeeves), where it remained for much of the summer. By 1956 Heinemann and Gollancz, who published English Journey jointly, had sold 96,000 hardback copies, making it Priestley's best-selling book in that format between Angel Pavement in 1930 and Bright Day in 1946, a period during which he wrote eight novels.102 It has rarely been out of print since its publication, and has been not only a popular read but a standard source for social historians of the 1930s, featuring in numerous footnotes, bibliographies and student reading lists. Later writers have referenced it, alluded to it, and queued up to re-enact it.103
This esteem, however, does not mean that there is any universal agreement as to how the book should be read. Reviews quoted on the 1934 dust-jacket saw it variously as socio-political documentary (‘brings home … the shameful condition in which millions of the English people are now living’ – Robert Lynd in the News Chronicle); as Good Companions part two (‘full of amusing characters, unexpected happenings, shrewd, humorous (p.53) and racy’ – Harper's Bazaar); as personal testimony (‘a thrilling tour with an incomparable guide’ – Daily Herald); and as an evocation of cosy Englishness (‘gives a fair and rounded picture of contemporary England … its people and its landscape, its towns and country’ – Howard Spring in the Evening Standard). Denys Thompson, in the Leavisite Scrutiny, described the book as ‘one large sop for the complacent’, by which he meant that Priestley had failed to parrot the Scrutiny line on popular entertainment.104 Historians have tended to read English Journey alongside The Road to Wigan Pier, as a work of social investigation, bringing together the Slump with the emerging consumerist England. Angus Calder, however, describes the book as a ‘popular travelogue’, establishing Priestley's ‘credentials as a sturdy patriot’ through its ‘celebration of English landscape and character’.105 As this verdict shows, it is still possible to read English Journey (though somewhat perversely, I would argue) as one of the deluge of cosy English travel books which poured from the presses in the 1930s and are now found in profusion on the shelves of the second-hand bookshops.
I suggest that there are three plausible approaches to reading English Journey, each of which will be explored in this and the next two chapters. It can be seen as a study of England and the English character; as an exploration of twentieth-century modernity and its impact; or as a social-reforming stepping-stone on the ‘road to 1945’. As this range of choice suggests, it is a useful feature of travel narrative that the writer can turn it to a whole range of different purposes, all the while protesting that they are doing no more than simply describing what they saw and where they went. So it is with English Journey. The book has no introductory declaration of the journey's aims. Nor is there a giveaway title: Priestley is not on the road to anywhere (e.g. Wigan Pier), nor is he going in search of anything (e.g. England): he's just journeying. The book's extended and somewhat arch subtitle almost warns us off having any preconceived ideas as to what it may be about:
Being a rambling but truthful account of what one man saw and heard and felt and thought during a journey through England during the Autumn of the year 1933.
This deliberate archaism implicitly (and disingenuously) tells us not to expect too much in the way of structure and purpose: this is not a sociological survey, simply a truthful account of a journey. Priestley himself we are invited to regard as an honest Everyman, just accurately recording and honestly responding to what he sees. The self-deprecating ‘rambling’ leads us to expect the artlessness which guarantees authenticity but demurs at drawing challenging conclusions. We may be in for an amusing time, but we mustn’t expect to learn too much.
Priestley seems to confirm this when he begins the book merely by (p.54) telling us where he is going first and what he takes with him. Having no destination but ‘England’, where he already is, he boards a motor coach for Southampton, on no stronger grounds than that that is where many visitors arrive in England. This opening section which describes his journey there seems composed of chance encounters and rambling reflections.106 He is astonished at the coach's comfort, which he compares to that of the new picture-palaces: in travel as in pleasure, provided you have just a little money, the distinction between rich and poor has been annihilated. He looks out of the window at West London, and the new Great West Road – looking more Californian than English – and at the line of new factories on either side, not ‘real’ factories, built of brick with a chimney at the corner, but pretty glass and concrete façades with painted signs and coloured lights, housing little luxury trades, the new industries that have moved south. But how pleasant it would be if we could all work there. And then he starts a conversation with a fellow-passenger: a down-at-heel but ever-optimistic small businessman, looking for an ‘opening’: tea-rooms (no good, on account of the Slump), hairdressing, electric light, wireless (all booming now). Depressed Newcastle isn’t doing the business it once did. All over, big companies are cutting out the small man. The coach stops at Winchester, where the businessman gets off: these small cathedral cities, how attractive they are, but who could spend a whole day there without getting bored? And then off into the Hampshire countryside, so redolent of England, so lovely to look at, yet so incapable of earning its living.
Inconsequential and artless these first few pages may appear, but how many of the themes of English Journey are foreshadowed in them? North and south, the shifting economic geography of England, the rise of consumer goods and services, the Slump and the decline of heavy industry, the rise of corporate capitalism and the decline of the small business, the cultural impact of new technologies, Americanisation, the democrati-sation of culture, English identity, ‘old England’, its landscapes and towns and its irrelevance to the modern world: Priestley's England summarised. All these themes crop up again and again through the book, and are drawn together in its conclusion. If Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier makes his agenda clear by thrusting the squalor of poverty straight into our faces at the start of chapter one, Priestley sets his out in a few random glances through a motor-coach window and a desultory conversation with a stranger.107
English Journey, like any other travelogue, presents us with two narratives: a story about a journey, and a story about the place the journey passes through. The first story is carefully constructed by the route that Priestley, apparently randomly, decides to follow. He begins in the soft south, whereupon he prepares himself for what is to come, and makes it very clear what the central motivation of the book is: ‘I know there is deep (p.55) distress in the country. I have seen some of it, just a glimpse of it, already, and I know there is far, far more ahead of me.’108 Proceeding through the relatively prosperous industrial midlands to his own West Riding, shaken but still standing, to Lancashire, its cotton industry in collapse, he finally hits the climax of the book in the dereliction and despair of the north-east, which completely overshadows and trivialises the bucolic charm of the ‘heritage’ route back to London via York, Lincoln, Norwich and Cambridge. But before he gets there he has already laid down a set of themes and ideas which he will mobilise in analysing and explaining their situation: themes such as industrialism and anti-industrialism, beauty and ugliness, the nature of work, popular culture, civic culture, social inequality.
By the end of the book, in the remarkable concluding chapter, he is ready to declare his second, larger narrative, a historical one. This is a narrative about north and south, about industry and finance, about the productive and the unproductive, about the drawing of wealth away from those who produce it, and about the concealment of all this beneath a carapace of traditions and institutions that are identified with the nation. This is a theme for which his readers are by now thoroughly prepared. In Bradford, Hull, Gateshead he has deplored the decay of the civic culture of his Edwardian urban Arcadia:
The richer merchants and manufacturers [of Bradford] no longer live in the city. They work there, but live well outside … Throughout the north … the wealthier industrialists are busy turning themselves into country gentlemen and are leaving the cities to the professional, clerking and working classes … When I was a boy, we had certain wealthy families of manufacturers who came as near to forming an aristocracy as such a democratic community as ours would allow. Now they are gone, and their places have not been taken by other families. That chapter is closed.109
Similarly, the substantial citizens of Hull have moved out into the countryside, leaving the town's cultural life to those too poor to support it properly; while ‘if anybody ever made money in Gateshead, they must have taken great care not to spend any of it in the town’.110 In what is arguably the book's climactic moment Priestley gazes on the giant slag-heap of the Durham pit-village of Shotton and muses on
all the fine things that had been conjured out of it in its time, the country houses and town houses, the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms, the carriages and pairs, the trips to Paris, the silks and the jewels, the peaches and iced puddings, the cigars and old brandies; I thought I saw them all tumbling and streaming out, hurrying away from Shotton – oh, a long way from Shotton – as fast as they could go.111
But Priestley is writing in 1934: the Slump is at its worst. The problems of industrial England were more immediate than the abiding ‘filth and (p.56) ugliness’ that had been laid down in the Industrial Revolution, or even the desertion of those who had profited from it. In those who were left behind, Priestley found another England, ‘the England of the dole’, where everything that had made nineteenth-century industrial England not just bearable but even a source of pride and identity had been left to rot: ‘it is not being added to and has no new life poured into it’.112 Here were men rendered useless through no fault of their own, their self-respect in shreds, ‘their very manhood’ going under.113 Priestley visits Bradford for a boisterous regimental reunion, a scene ‘alive with roaring masculinity’, only to find that some of his old comrades could not even attend, unable to afford decent clothes and too proud to appear without them. These men had been heroes in the war, but heroism had been undercut by a postwar life which left ‘their manhood stunted, their generous impulses baffled’.114 The War, the collapse of ‘real men's work’ in shipbuilding or mining, the decline of the civic public sphere: all amount to the collapse of an old masculine world. Young men of this generation, he has heard, are far less enterprising than the girls; perhaps, he muses later, ‘masculine pig-head-edness’ is part of the problem, and we will have to turn to women for an answer.115
Throughout the north, he has found the same: a series of personal tragedies which adds up to a collective national tragedy. What is to be done? Priestley acknowledges that he is no economist, but he can see that the dole is a palliative, not a solution: it will not bring these people and their communities back to life. So there must be a plan – what kind of plan he is not sure, but something constructive and creative, involving the whole nation. ‘The whole thing is unworthy of a great country that in its time has given the world some nobly creative ideas. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.’116 But he is fairly sure who is to blame for all this, and his answer refers us back to the repertoire of provincial radicalism. Why is the City still doing so well, ‘treated as if it were the very beating red heart of England’? It must have got its money from somewhere – in large part from the toil of the industrial north, which it bled dry and now abandoned to its fate, doing to it ‘what the black-moustached glossy gentleman in the old melodrama always did to the innocent village maiden’.117
If English Journey encompasses the nation as a totality, that totality has an absent centre: London. Although the capital is where he starts out from, apart from glimpses of the western suburbs it is rarely mentioned; significantly, when he returns home at the end of the book, his car crawls into London through thick fog, through which nothing can be seen. But London is present throughout English Journey a distorting and parasitic force on the rest of the country. Before the War, it was not like this. In the north there had been ‘a kind of regional self-sufficiency, not defying London but genuinely indifferent to it’. His father, he remembers, rarely (p.57) saw a national newspaper: he read the Bradford-based Yorkshire Observer, and occasionally C. P. Scott's Manchester Guardian. ‘What happened “down south”, outside politics, was no concern of his.’118 Despite moving to London, living and working there for much of his life and developing a great deal of affection for the city, Priestley remained deeply suspicious of London's influence on the national life, which he considered to have increased, and not to the good, since 1914. Above all, London stood for the ‘moneylending England’ which was bleeding the north dry – ‘For generations, this blackened North toiled and moiled so that England should be rich and the City of London a great power in the world’ – and its geographical proximity to political power: ‘The City is much too near Westminster,’ he later wrote, ‘they can hear each other talking.’119
Denys Thompson, reviewing English Journey in Scrutiny, couldn’t imagine why Priestley wasted time fiddling about in Cotswold pubs while on the Tees and Tyne there were perfectly good slums waiting to be described.120 I hope we can now see why Priestley's journey had to cover the whole of England, and not just the ‘depressed areas’. His interpretation of the Slump, and of everything about 1930s England, is holistic, and historical. In the conclusion, famously, he identifies ‘three Englands’ – ‘Old’ rural, ‘Nineteenth Century’ industrial and ‘New’ consumerist – not separate places on the map, but successive layers of national history: crudely speaking, agrarian, industrial and consumer capitalism, representing in Raymond Williams's terms, the residual, the dominant and the emergent Englands of the 1930s.121 History is uneven, and these phases did not succeed each other in an orderly procession but overlapped, interacted and lingered on, ‘variously and fascinatingly mingled in every part of the country I had visited’.122 It is by understanding this ‘mingling’, the interplay between these ‘Englands’, that we can understand the multiple, unevenly developing and contradictory nation Priestley saw in 1933 – the product of its uneven and contradictory history. In seeking a way forward, Priestley develops themes of community and social responsibility, the importance of self-respect, the unequal relationship between wealth-creators and money-jugglers, and the nation as a single community with shared responsibility for all its members. This is why his central, indignant question about England in 1933 is not ‘why are these people so poor’, but ‘Was Jarrow still in England or not?’
A fashion for fact
Significantly English Journey was commissioned by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz, who went on to publish Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier and to underwrite Mass Observation's work, and the book (p.58) was published by Gollancz jointly with Priestley's regular publisher, Heinemann. In its social-democratic impulse, and its attempt to create or contribute to a public sphere of debate, English Journey can be seen as part of the 1930s shift towards social documentation which affected a wide range of media from journalistic and fictional writing to photography, radio and cinema, and embraced projects like Mass Observation and magazines such as Picture Post. In the 1920s, at odds with the prevailing atmosphere of modernist experimentation, Priestley had stuck out like a prematurely aged leftover from 1900. Now his increasing politicisation and engagement with social issues was converging with the new documentary trend, and he was suddenly up to date, with a whole new persona as a serious commentator on society and current affairs. As the title of one of his review articles in 1934 declared: ‘Fact is now the fashion, but it must be disguised as fiction’.123 But just as the ‘documentary impulse’, when closely examined, tends to fragment into a number of diverse and conflicting trends, so Priestley's relationship to this new wave was a complicated one.
In 1934, when English Journey was published, the documentary impulse was only just getting going. Key developments such as Mass Observation (founded in 1937) and the photojournalism of Picture Post (1938) – for which Priestley himself was to write – were still in the future. Moreover, there were other, less political, impulses in the wind, which were also feeding the appetite for domestic travelogues, the ‘fashion for fact’, as Priestley and his publisher were surely aware. The new domesticity of the 1930s expressed itself in an unprecedented demand for books about England, ranging from the rather cosy travelogues of H. V. Morton and others to the many guide books which announced the arrival on the scene of the motoring public.124 And even politically engaged ‘state of the nation’ books could be conservative in tone: for example those of Priestley's fellow Heinemann author Philip Gibbs, whose European Journey was intended as a companion piece to Priestley's. Books like Morton's, and most other investigations of English landscape and character, were also conservative in their depiction of the nation, reaffirming its pre-industrial heritage rather than challenging its current condition.125 What this suggests is that in the early 1930s the impulse to document and describe the nation was politically ambivalent, just as likely to come up with a conservative and backward-looking redefinition of England as with demands for political and social reform. Priestley's book, a direct response to the Slump, was anything but cosy and reassuring about the state of the nation, but its success also reflects the ‘fashion for fact’ amongst a middle-class, suburban reading public – the novel-readers to whom English Journey was so energetically promoted, and at whom the blander reviews were aimed. But Priestley was determined to go beyond the bland expectations of these readers.
(p.59) Later in the decade, over beer and ham sandwiches in the saloon bars of Soho, he would encounter the documentary film-makers, admiring ‘their contempt for easy big prizes and soft living, their taut social conscience, their rather Marxist sense of the contemporary scene’, and work briefly with Grierson and Cavalcanti, sharing the social-democratic impulse which motivated much of their work. He liked their enthusiasm, their exploration of cinematic technique, and their willingness to ‘work like demons for a few pounds a week’, while the moguls of Hollywood and the Savoy Grill were spending money like water on films that never got made. Above all, he felt they represented the future, a generation ahead of the ‘old-fashioned theatrical types’ who were running the film studios. Characteristically, and prudently, he did not spurn Hollywood or the Savoy Grill, but kept a toe-hold in the commercial cinema, although like the documentarists he deplored its version of national life, ‘taken from a few issues of the Sketch and Tatler and a collection of Christmas cards’. He was also sceptical of some of the more extreme claims made on behalf of documentary, and like most of its practitioners knew that it was not a window on the world but an aesthetic strategy deployed to construct a particular effect: ‘It is not the raw material but the treatment that counts’, and for realism you could not beat the printed word. ‘Nearly all documentary films’, he wrote in 1939, ‘seem to me a very romantic heightening of ordinary life, comparable not to the work of a realistic novelist or dramatist, but to the picturesque and highly-coloured fictions of the romancer.’ Film as a medium ‘cannot help dropping out all the dull passages, beautifying and heightening the rest, and then giving the whole thing a kind of glitter and excitement’. The results can be entertaining, dramatic, moving. But ‘for plain truth they cannot compete with the printed word’: by which he meant not just simple reportage but realistic fiction.126
What we have here, no doubt, is the writer's puritanical mistrust of the emotional seductiveness of the visual image, and of film's ability to conceal its constructed nature behind a ‘naturalised’ visual rhetoric, while the writer has no option but to construct his world by putting marks on paper. Priestley would never have agreed with his fellow novelist Storm Jameson, who, writing in the magazine Fact in 1937, urged writers to imitate the documentary makers. Instead of dressing up facts as fictions, or going on ‘visits to the distressed areas in a motor-car’, the writer should keep himself and his feelings out of the picture, while selectively deploying the facts, as documentarists do visual images, in such a way that they, not the author, would elicit the readers’ emotional response.127 This was not Priestley's way. For one thing, he did not know how to write without putting himself in the picture; even the third-person narrators in his novels cannot forbear to let you know what they think about characters, events and situations. For another, he was at heart a rationalist, preferring argument (p.60) and persuasion to emotional manipulation. English Journey, as the subtitle tells us, is about where he went, and what he ‘saw and heard and felt and thought’. This is Priestley's England, and there is no pretence that he is letting it speak for itself. But his interpretations are so openly presented that the reader is virtually invited to argue with them: and indeed he often argues with himself. In this way we are drawn into a debate, instead of being presented with an unchallengeable version of the world.
Nor was Priestley's notion of the ‘plain truth’ ever all that plain. Strict realism bored him: never a fan of Arnold Bennett's approach, he needed a touch of ‘the fantastic, the philosophical, the symbolical’ in his work.128 In an article written in 1932 he wrote that the only way the contemporary novel could avoid becoming ‘lost in subjectivity’ was through ‘some kind of dramatic symbolism, in narratives that would move in more than one world at once’.129 In many of his plays, as he pointed out, while the initial setting and characters are usually naturalistic enough, very often the naturalism starts to fade, and something strange and fantastic starts to happen; much the same could be said of his novels, which are full of premonitions and symbolic events.130 In the work of the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Priestley found a parallel to his ideal mode of representation: an art which is ‘not aristocratic but essentially anonymous and democratic, what films would be if they really were works of art and not products of a cynical industry’, and a model for those writers who ‘do not wish on the one hand to whisper to a few, or on the other hand merely to tickle the mob’. Bruegel's paintings are realistic on one level, full of sharply observed detail, but ‘somewhere just around the corner is a fairytale country. We are poised on the edge of marvels and miracles.’ This is ‘not a plain realism … but a realism merging into the magical. And as you stare again, feeling a trifle haunted, the realistic-magical turns into the symbolic’, revealing a ‘rich and complicated’ world, ‘beautiful and faintly tragic’.
He had as we have a desperate, foundation-cracking world as his scene and background. Then as now in man's spiritual life the seas were dark and heavy and the steering-gear had nearly gone. There was still colour and gaiety in the foreground, but in the background it looked as if doomsday were breaking … a great artist with a broad appeal of the popular, tragicomic, democratic kind, showing the crowd a vision of their own life; and those of us who ask to do nothing better than this, for we cannot see that there is anything better to do, whether we are painters, authors, producers of plays and films, should turn to him for refreshment and confirmation.131
This seems to me one of Priestley's most important aesthetic statements, and he is talking about himself – or, rather, himself as he would like to be. He avows his ‘democratic’ aim of ‘showing the crowd a vision of their own life’, but acknowledges that a straightforward documentary realism (p.61) would not do this. Only some form of magical realism could do justice to the ‘plain truth’ of the world and what lurks behind its surface appearances.
Bruegel's art as Priestley describes it achieves this truth by combining a surface realism with a deeper mystery and symbolism. If the possibilities of film were to be realised, it too must work on more than one level. A start would be for documentary and entertainment film to come together. Soho Square would provide the enthusiasm, the ‘social conscience and knowledge of the English scene’, while the Savoy Grill would provide the resources and the popular dramatic techniques, the capacity to entertain. This would probably not produce Bruegel-like work, but it might achieve a much-needed ‘strengthening and thickening’ of the ‘social texture’ of English cinema.132 According to one narrative of British cinema history, this is exactly what happened: the ‘realist’ movies of wartime, and the British ‘New Wave’ of the 1950s and 1960s, brought together the methods of documentary and feature film to create a national cinema which could finally deal properly with national life. It is a narrative which favours the high seriousness of documentary realism over other, and often more popular national genres, such as Hammer horror, or Gainsborough romance.133 Nevertheless, it does reflect what some novelists, including Priestley, were trying to achieve in the 1930s.
Another writer who wrote both fact and fiction in his attempts to grasp England in the 1930s was, of course, George Orwell; although, as we have seen, he did not appreciate Priestley's first shot at social realism in Angel Pavement. Reviewing Orwell's first book, Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933, Priestley was rather more generous, greeting it as ‘uncommonly good reading and a social document of some value’, and congratulating its author because unlike so many swaggering writers of ‘the down-and-out species’ he was prepared to regard his readers as his equals.134 This remark perhaps indicates how commonplace the chronicles of squalor had become even by this time. In later life Priestley expressed his exasperation at Orwell's booming reputation, complaining that everything Orwell had done he had done first.135 This is not all that far from the truth: whatever their relative merits as writers, in the 1930s the kind of things they wrote were, in fact, very similar: contemporary novels in the realist mode, and personalised reportage, sustained by essays and book reviews. But of course, Priestley wrote in the Evening Standard and the Sunday Chronicle, while Orwell's writing appeared in the more ‘literary’ (but less lucrative) surroundings of the Criterion and New English Weekly, which may supply some clue as to their respective reputations.
As Valentine Cunningham has pointed out, Orwell's – and even the decade's – most celebrated work of documentary reportage, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), owes a debt to English Journey which it resolutely (p.62) fails to acknowledge, with the result that (like much of Orwell's work) it is ‘sometimes wrongly taken as a wonderfully unique achievement’.136 English Journey had hit the road first, inspiring as well as latching on to the new realist spirit – as the photographer Bill Brandt, who went north after reading it, generously acknowledged. Orwell's book echoes not just the structural form of the journey but the continuous, opinionated authorial voice, the personal encounters with representative natives, the occasional injection of facts and figures, and a descriptive mode which turns the industrial landscape itself into a vehicle of moral indignation. However, there are also significant differences between the two books. Documentary film, Mass Observation and Wigan Pier all have in common a particular construction of the relationship between the implied readers, the subjects of the investigation and the writer/film-maker. Narrative structure is important to this, because it establishes, literally and figuratively, where the author is coming from. English Journey begins with a departure and ends with a return home, its narrative space completely occupied by the journey. In chapter 1 of The Road to Wigan Pier, however, Orwell is already at his destination, waking up in a grim northern lodging-house: he is ‘there’, having got there, we take it, from somewhere else. Wigan Pier is structured around this dichotomy between origin and destination, as its title itself announces. Normality is the familiar middle-class London life which lies at the beginning of the road; but at the other end, ‘when you go to the industrial north you are conscious, quite apart from the unfamiliar scenery, of entering a strange country’.137 This ‘you’, the book's hypothetical reader, is, we therefore assume, not an inhabitant of this ‘strange country’. In emphasising his own social and cultural distance from what he was observing, Orwell was, of course, being nothing less than honest. The sympathy he felt for the northern working class was not based on any populist pretence of common experience on the part of a south-eastern, Old Etonian, ‘lower-upper-middle-class’ writer. But everyone comes from somewhere; and, in constructing his narrative as a journey from a familiar place into the unknown, Orwell excludes the possibility that where he came from and where he arrived at are really (or ought to be) both the same place: their people, though different and unequal, members of the same community, who all owe each other the same duty of fellowship. A similar problem of social distance has been identified in the documentary film movement and Mass Observation, and, to be fair, Orwell does not fail to address it. In the tortured discussion of class and socialism which makes up the second half of the book, we can see him striving, and failing, to construct and believe in this sense of common fellowship. However, for all its vividness of description and human sympathy, Wigan Pier is as lacking in explanations and solutions for the problems it describes as any middle-class Victorian expedition into ‘darkest England’.
(p.63) Priestley's destination, on the other hand, is ‘England’, which means that he is already there. He knows and likes some bits of it better than others, but there is no sense that he is alienated from whole chunks of it, or that he is coming into it from somewhere else. Nor does he make Orwell's semi-conscious assumption that the people the book is about are distinct from the people who are reading it. With Priestley, though he does not shirk, and indeed emphasises, social division and inequality, we are all ‘us’, all members of England: which makes social exclusion particularly unacceptable: ‘Was Jarrow still in England or not?’ In this respect, Priestley succeeds where Orwell fails: partly because he himself comes from ‘out there’, the industrial north; but also, and more significantly, because of the kind of book he is writing, aimed at a broad market – more Book Society than Left Book Club – and therefore necessarily more inclusive in tone. Such are the consequences of the ‘fashion for fact’ and the reconciliation of entertainment and documentary.
On the road again
Indeed, it can be argued that the Book Society and its kind contributed at least as much as the Left Book Club or the documentary film movement to opening up a new public sphere of debate in the 1930s, through the combination of fact and fiction which was characteristic of the despised ‘middlebrow’ novel. Take, for example, A. J. Cronin's The Citadel (1937), which follows the career of a young doctor from early practice in the south Wales valleys to Harley Street and beyond.138 The protagonist's life story and moral struggle provides the narrative thrust, but the book is also a comprehensive critique of the health system of the time, supported by a huge amount of information about its operation at every level. The book's semi-documentary content and political purpose did not prevent it selling ninety thousand copies in eight weeks; nor did its huge sales stop it from contributing to the ongoing debate about health care which was to culminate in the Beveridge Report and the foundation of the NHS.139
‘After all, you know, I have certain quite strong political convictions, and I tend more and more to bring them into my writing.’ So Priestley wrote to his friend Hugh Walpole in 1936, disappointed at the latter's lukewarm response to They Walk in the City.140 Much of Priestley's output in the 1930s attempted in a wide range of different forms – novels, plays, film scripts, journalism – to grapple with the rising social and political crisis of that decade. Rather than adopting Cronin's preferred form of the lengthy Bildungsroman, these novels picked up on the journey theme of Good Companions and English Journey (and also Faraway (1932)), and the ‘crisis’ plot of Angel Pavement. Wonder Hero (1934), the film script Sing As We Go (1934) and They Walk in the City (1936) all deal (p.64) with the misadventures of young working-class people whose lives are disrupted for one reason or another: they go on their travels, undergo a series of hazards and trials and ultimately gain success and return home to a happy ending. In short, they are quest romances. In Hero and They Walk, most of the hazards which threaten the young provincials are found in London, and, in an echo of earlier Priestley writings, London itself is portrayed as the villain of the piece, the source of disruption, danger and moral decay, and it is the provincial industrial town which stands for safety and solid values. In Priestley's other major Slump fiction, the script he wrote for the Gracie Fields film Sing As We Go, Gracie goes to Blackpool rather than London, as appropriate for a Lancashire comedy, but she too undergoes many adventures and returns home with a solution to the problem which began her travels, the closure of the local mill.141
Wonder Hero's Charlie Habble, a young Midlands factory worker, prevents an explosion in the factory where he works, and the newspaper he reads, the Daily Tribune, takes him off to London, and turns him into a temporary media hero. Through Charlie's eyes, we see the futility and corruption, moral, sexual, financial and political, of metropolitan life; and we also meet Ida, another temporary and therefore so far uncorrupted celebrity, who comes from a neighbouring midlands town. Then Charlie hears that his aunt is seriously ill, and hurries off to the north-eastern town of Slakeby, which has been devastated by the collapse of the shipbuilding industry, and where only the banks seem to be doing well. With the money the Tribune has given him, Charlie can help his aunt, but he can do nothing about the disintegration of the town and along with it his aunt's family. Back in London, he finds everyone has forgotten all about him; meets up with Ida again, falls in love, gets his old job back, and the couple return home together. Formally speaking, Charlie's successful romantic quest is for Ida, but this love interest is perfunctory. The novel's real focus of interest, and what Charlie really discovers, is the condition of England; or rather, three Englands: the relatively prosperous midlands; the stricken north; and London, the nexus of corruption and exploitation, which starts the whole process off by drawing Charlie and Ida into its maw, and then spits them out again when they have served its purposes. While the London scenes are painted in lurid colours, the Slakeby chapter, ironically entitled ‘This other Eden’, adopts a documentary mode, with plenty of physical description and factual information about the dole system and the impact of unemployment on the people, much of it delivered, like the novel's direct political message, through the crusading Dr Inverurie.142 Wonder Hero is a critique of Britain on the dole, but it is also a critique of the popular press, which should be telling people what is going on but prefers to focus its attention on beauty queens and imaginary heroes. ‘We don’t like putting the spotlight on that part of the country’, says the journalist Hughson, when he hears that Charlie is going to Slakeby.143
(p.65) Priestley was clearly now in crusading mode, and, after Wonder Hero appeared in August 1933, he set off on the tour which was to result in English Journey. But he did not regard Wonder Hero as a success. In Margin Released he describes it as one of his ‘deliberately polemical, journalistic, social-moral fables’, intended to make a quick impact on a public more likely to read a novel than a non-fiction book, rather than to make a lasting contribution to fiction – in effect, a fictional version of English Journey. In retrospect, he felt, English Journey did the job better. Priestley is not entirely fair to his own work here. While no one is likely to claim Wonder Hero as a great novel, and in fact it sold fewer copies than English Journey, its combination of social actualité and robust satire, within the framework of a conventionally romantic story, is unusual and worthwhile. The London scenes at the newspaper, in a nightclub, at Lady Catterbird's fashionable party and at a semi-fascist meeting, have comedy and immediacy, with more than a touch of caricature, and exploit a vein of genuine disgust at the condition of metropolitan society, which we will see Priestley developing further during the War. The contrast in style between the comic satire of these passages and the sombre semi-documentary chapter set in Slakeby conveys in aesthetic terms, much as he hoped the British cinema would do, the fractured nature of English society in 1933. Ironically, one of Wonder Hero’s admirers, in a letter to Priestley, was Ramsay MacDonald, the former Labour Prime Minister, who was currently heading a Tory-dominated ‘National Government’ following the collapse of the Labour administration in 1931 under the impact of the Slump.144 MacDonald came from a poor background in Scotland, and represented a Durham mining constituency, but was notorious for his friendships with Lady Londonderry and other London aristocratic hostesses. No individual could have better embodied the fractured nation of Wonder Hero.
Sing As We Go (1934) was a very different proposition: a musical comedy, and a vehicle for Gracie Fields, then the country's biggest variety and recording star, whose fee took up half the film's budget. The director, Basil Dean, brought Priestley in as scriptwriter not just for his skill with plot and dialogue, recently demonstrated in his first two successful plays, but because it was thought his regional and class background would enable him to write a more convincing story for the Lancastrian Gracie. But he was also now a celebrity, with box-office appeal in his own right. Advance publicity for the film proclaimed Fields and Priestley (‘author of The Good Companions’) as its two main attractions.145
Priestley had long been a fan of Gracie Fields, whose persona embodied the down-to-earth qualities of the northern people.
Listen to her for a quarter of an hour and you will learn more about Lancashire women and Lancashire than you would from a dozen books on (p.66) these subjects. All the qualities are there: shrewdness, homely simplicity, irony, fierce independence, an impish delight in mocking whatever is thought to be affected and pretentious.146
In June 1939, when Gracie was dangerously ill and the nation was holding its breath, Priestley expanded on this theme in the Manchester-based Sunday Chronicle:
The secret of Gracie Fields’ popularity is that not only does she know, because of her genuine genius for the task, how to entertain people, but she knows, too, how to represent the people. In a country in which privilege is still the rule and snobbery is the most characteristic weakness, the people do not get much of a chance to express themselves. But in Gracie Fields for once they are expressing themselves, and that is why she is at one and the same time an admired artist, a symbolic figure, and a beloved woman.147
Priestley's populist understanding of Gracie's cultural significance, and the interplay between the artist, the symbol and the woman, explains a lot about Sing As We Go, and why it was, perhaps surprisingly, a movie about the Slump. The plot follows a familiar pattern of crisis, quest and redemption, seen through the eyes not of some imperial hero but of a Lancashire mill-girl, and played out not on some distant battlefield but in the working-class holiday resort of Blackpool. Lancashire cotton is collapsing, and Greybeck Mill closes. Nothing daunted, Grace Platt (Gracie Fields) cycles off to Blackpool to look for work. Here, against a carnivalesque background of funfairs and holidaymaking, she finds a variety of jobs, including waitressing in a boarding-house, performing as a human spider and a vanishing woman, and singing in a promenade song-plugging establishment, and she rescues the pretty, innocent and middle-class Phyllis from an evil seducer. She also meets a benevolent millionaire, who, with the aid of a new textile process, is able to reopen the mill. Grace is appointed welfare officer, and in a rousing finale leads the workers back into the mill singing the optimistic title song.
No wonder serious critics like Paul Rotha ticked off Dean and Priestley for making comedy out of ‘social unhappiness’.148 In fact, though, the film was more popular amongst the northern audiences who were actually experiencing the problems it depicted – including Bolton where the factory-closing scenes were shot – than it was in the south where unemployment was low.149 Perhaps this was because of Gracie Fields herself, nationally popular, but more so in the north, thanks to her strong working-class northern persona. Perhaps it was because the film worked off a recognisable version of northern working-class life, at work in the factory and on holiday in Blackpool, including locations such as the Pleasure Beach, which northern audiences would have recognised. If the latter, then the unusual semi-documentary style of Sing As We Go, is partly responsible for its success. Despite being a star vehicle, and a (p.67) musical comedy, the film avoided the glamorous spectacle associated with the Hollywood musical, and with British versions of it such as Evergreen, the Gaumont-British musical starring Jessie Matthews which also came out in 1934 and was successful in the south of England and the United States, but far less so in the north.150 A more down-to-earth approach, rooted in older British popular cultural forms such as the music-hall and the funfair, rather than the newly dominant Hollywood pattern, suited Fields's persona. Real locations and, for crowd scenes, non-professional actors were used, making the film a hybrid of traditional popular entertainment, star-vehicle musical and documentary realism, with a rich mix, in Andrew Higson's words, of ‘voices, forms and cultures, both high and low, respectable and vulgar’, including montage sequences in the factory and at Blackpool which can be traced back, via the documentary movement, to Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.151 For this mix, of course, Dean, and the editor Thorold Dickenson, who devised the montage sequences, were at least as responsible as Priestley. Nevertheless, in the story we can spot what by now were trademark Priestley themes: the celebration of popular energy and ‘gusto’, the affection for popular art and above all the film's focus on community, one of its running themes.
The strengths of Greybeck life before the mill closes are depicted as communal – the concert party, the football team – unemployment is seen as a misfortune endured collectively, even by the boss's son, and the workers march out of the mill as they will march back in, singing together. In Blackpool we see the collectivity of working-class pleasure – including, bizarrely, the appearance of a Friendly Society, complete with procession, banners and secret rituals, on its annual outing to the seaside. And in the final shot of the film, when we have seen the workers march back into the mill, Gracie sings the closing lines of the title song directly to the camera, incorporating the cinema audience into the community of the factory. Grace herself is, of course, a strong individual, but her ultimate role, welfare officer, represents the collective interest of the workers, and at the climactic moments we identify with the crowd just as much as with her. This emphasis on the collective owes a lot to Priestley's understanding of working-class life, and it also chimes in with his developing political stance in English Journey and elsewhere. This does not turn the film into a radical text, but it undercuts the conservative, consensual effect which some have detected in its ‘stirring and patriotic reassurance that all will be well in the end’.152 As with the ‘middlebrow’ novel, we must not make too much of ‘happy endings’. The film ends well because all musicals end well, with the resolution of the characters’ problems, but this does not fool audiences into thinking that real life is like that. The important thing is exactly how ‘all’ comes to ‘be well in the end’. In Sing As We Go it is because the people (not just the workers but the boss too) pull together to solve their problems. This image of solidarity is not revolutionary, (p.68) but nor is it conservative: it is best described as social-democratic, and it would come into its own in the next decade.
In the stone forest
They Walk in the City was in many ways the most ambitious thing Priestley attempted in the 1930s, an attempt to write a major novel comparable to Angel Pavement, and by general consent (including the author's) it was not altogether successful. After it had come out, Priestley explained what he had been trying to do:
To take two simple young people, typical specimens of the exploited and helpless class, to bring them together, part them, bring them together again, in the fashion of the oldest and simplest love stories, but to place them and their little romance within a strong framework of social criticism. The two youngsters would be symbolic figures rather than solidly created characters. Much of what happened to them would be symbolic of the special difficulties and dangers of the large class they represented … .The reader's mind would be constantly yanked away from their viewpoint to a wide and critical survey of the social scene.153
And so Rose and Edward, two young people from Yorkshire, in love but separated by fate, end up in London trying to find each other again, and on the way are ‘threatened by various forces – some old, like capitalist imperialism, etc., others new, like the Fascists and the Communists’, personified in the various events of the novel.154 The love story would provide the narrative thread, told alternately from each character's point of view, but it would be necessary to break off from their story to relate each episode to ‘a sharp analysis … of our modern urban life’.155 In the end, either the technical problems defeated him or he ran out of time and patience: either way, he failed to realise his idea, and, anxious to finish the book somehow, he resorted to ‘melodrama, and not even good melodrama’ in a lurid conclusion involving white slavery and contract killers.156 He never really solved the problem, either, of how to get his ‘sharp analysis’ across through two simple and unintellectual characters, without making the narrator's commentary intrusive. Nevertheless, there are good things to be salvaged from the book. The treatment of Yorkshire working-class life in the early chapters is vivid and affectionate. Running through the book is a sympathetic account of the impact of mass culture on the lives and thoughts of people like Rose and Edward. There are extended accounts of aspects of London life, including tea-shops, offices, hotels, domestic service. There are some rewarding minor characters, including fascists, communists, a thinly disguised cameo appearance from Priestley himself, and a rather pretentious (though not unsympathetic) young intellectual with a private income, named, in a sly dig at Bloomsbury, Francis Woburn.
(p.69) What They Walk's panorama of London life does not add up to, though, is the sharp analysis which Priestley was aiming for. Priestley's ambitions are similar to those of Balzac in La Comédie Humaine, but he lacks Balzac's totalising vision. In its place he has a series of Priestleian themes familiar to anyone who has read the other books discussed in this chapter: not without value, by any means, but not enough to carry the novel. He has not cracked the perennial problem – which, after all, has perplexed novelists and historians alike through the ages – of reconciling the particular and the general, rounded individual characters with social types, detailed and concrete realistic description with general patterns of society and history. A sure sign of this is that, instead of letting the actions, experiences and thoughts of his characters reveal the working of society and history, he is for ever taking us on one side to explain it to us. His next novel, Let the People Sing, which will be discussed in a later chapter, is the lesser work in many ways, but it gives a clearer account of Britain on the eve of war, paradoxically because it is less realistic: a simpler novel, with people and society drawn in bold strokes, it conveys a social and historical analysis more clearly through comic allegory than They Walk does through serious realism.
‘Britain wake up!’
Priestley began the last year of the 1930s, and the last year of peace, with a series of six articles in the centre-left popular daily the News Chronicle entitled, somewhat portentously, ‘Britain wake up!’. The national danger which Priestley was referring to came not from abroad, the rise of fascism and the ambitions of Hitler, but from within. The articles, whose arguments are further developed in Rain Upon Godshill, depict a nation which has lost its way. Proud inheritors of a great cultural and intellectual tradition, we have lost our own energy and creativity, and are in danger of losing the freedom we prize. Britain has become a national of inheritors rather than creators, a rich tired old country, led by rich tired old men.157 Democracy itself has gone backwards since the War, the same small privileged class in charge, cut off by their lifestyle from the mass of the people. Events like the Abdication and the Munich Crisis have shown that government has become as secretive and unresponsive as any dictatorship, while the complacent and deferential people have lost their zest for politics, and ‘have not had the energy and courage and public spirit to be true democrats’.158 Snobbery runs through our national life: we have lost the virtues of aristocracy without acquiring those of democracy, and we need the true bourgeois democracy of France or the United States, to make us a more honest, gayer and more intelligent people.159 Priestley renews his attack on the ‘moneylending’ Britain, and the private-income, dividenddrawing (p.70) class which lives off it, many of them idlers, the rest congenitally hostile to the risks which productive enterprise requires, most knowing more about the Empire than about industrial Britain. Since the rallying-cry of English Journey, nothing has been done for the unemployed, no relief work along American or even German lines.160 What is the way forward? The left, to which Priestley gives his guarded allegiance, is crippled by its workerism and class-consciousness, unwilling to recruit the new middle classes to its cause; but its greatest weakness is not extremism but tame-ness: ‘They lack wide vision and the ardent creative mind.’161 As for the middle classes, from whom the ideas should come to sort out this mess, they have retreated into a ‘car and wireless life’, cut off from the wider community, from politics and culture. We need real democracy to release the dammed-up talent of the people, starting with reform of Parliament and the electoral system, continuing with the abandonment of snobbery and exclusiveness. The British, Priestley concludes, are at heart a good people, who believe in co-operation and fairness and dislike intolerance and violence. They should be wide awake, instead of ‘mumbling and grumbling in their sleep’.162
Through the 1930s, Priestley had moved from the tentative social commentary of Angel Pavement to a scathing critique of British society and its institutions, and a programme for change based upon a belief in the inherent qualities of the British people. This critique looked back to Bradford's industrial radicalism, and forward to Priestley's wartime agitation, and his hope that 1940 would awaken the people from their slumbers. But also, for the first time since writing about English Humour a decade earlier, he had taken up the question of England and the English character, which we go on to explore in the next chapter.
(1) Parts of this chapter previously appeared in John Baxendale, ‘“I had seen a lot of Englands”: J. B. Priestley, Englishness and the people’, History Workshop Journal 51 (2001), pp. 87–111.
(2) Priestley, Rain, p. 253.
(3) Chris Waters, ‘J. B. Priestley: Englishness and the politics of nostalgia’, in Peter Mandler and Susan Pedersen (eds), After the Victorians: Private Conscience and Public Duty in Modern Britain (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 213–15.
(4) Priestley, Margin, p. 12; Cook, Priestley, pp. 3–5.
(5) Priestley's own accounts are in Margin Released, part one; The English (London: Heinemann, 1973), pp. 105–9; and Rain pp. 252–3. The ‘suburban drives’ come from Bright Day (London: Heinemann, 1946), p. 26. For secondary sources on Priestley's life see Cook, Priestley, and Peter Holdsworth, The Rebel Tyke: Bradford and J. B. Priestley (Bradford: (p.71) Bradford Libraries, 1994), which is particularly informative about Priestley's childhood. A visit to Bradford is also recommended. For his avowal of lower-middle-classness see, for example, The Edwardians (London: Heinemann, 1970), pp. 104ff.
(6) Bradford Corporation Official Guide, 1917, quoted in Henry Pelling, The Social Geography of British Elections 1885–1910 (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 298.
(7) Priestley, Rain, pp. 252–3.
(8) Priestley, English Journey, p. 400.
(10) Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968), p. 137.
(11) Midnight, p. 132.
(12) J. B. Priestley, ‘Preface’ to Fenner Brockway, Socialism Over Sixty Years: The Life of Jowett of Bradford (1864–1944) (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1946), p. 7. Keith Leybourne, ‘“The defence of the bottom dog”: the Independent Labour Party in local politics’, in D. G. Wright and J. A. Jowitt (eds), Victorian Bradford: Essays in Honour of Jack Reynolds (Bradford, City of Bradford Metropolitan Council, 1982), pp. 237–9.
(13) Priestley, Margin, p. 11; Midnight, p. 133.
(14) J. B. Priestley, ‘Born and bred in Bradford’, Listener (27 December 1945), p. 753.
(15) Margaret McMillan, The Life of Rachel McMillan (London: J. M. Dent, 1927), p. 77.
(16) Leybourne, ‘Defence’.
(17) Priestley, ‘Preface’.
(18) Tony Jowitt, ‘The pattern of religion in Victorian Bradford’, in Wright and Jowett (eds), Victorian Bradford, pp. 37–61.
(19) Priestley, Rain, p. 269.
(20) W. Haslam Mills, Grey Pastures (London: Chatto and Windus, 1924), p. 17. Priestley reviewed this book in the Daily News (23 October 1924), p. 8.
(21) Priestley, Outcries, p. 142.
(23) See also Priestley, Margin, part 1.
(24) Priestley, Margin, p. 195.
(25) Priestley, Bright Day, pp. 43–4; Margin, pp. 28–9.
(26) Priestley, Margin, p. 30; English Journey, p. 160.
(27) Priestley, Bright Day, pp. 92–8; 114–16.
(29) Priestley, ‘Masses, workers and the people’, Star (31 July 1935), p. 4.
(30) Priestley, ‘Born and bred’, p. 754.
(31) Priestley, English Journey, pp. 299.
(33) Priestley, Edwardians, p. 97.
(34) Priestley, Margin, p. 7
(35) Patrick Joyce, Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 329.
(38) J. B. Priestley, Out of the People (London: Collins/Heinemann, 1941), pp. 111, 33.
(39) Priestley, Midnight, p. 132.
(40) Priestley, ‘Masses, workers and the people’.
(41) David Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party 1886–1906 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983), p. 165.
(42) Priestley, ‘Preface’ to Socialism Over Sixty Years, p. 11.
(43) Priestley, Rain, pp. 256–7.
(44) Priestley, Edwardians, pp. 106–8.
(45) Priestley, Rain, pp. 256–7.
(46) Priestley, ‘Preface’, p. 11.
(47) Priestley, Midnight, p. 135.
(49) Priestley, Outcries, p. 120.
(50) Priestley, Midnight, p. 135; Priestley, ‘What is freedom?’, News Chronicle (5 June 1939), p. 10.
(51) Priestley, Midnight, pp. 135–43.
(52) An important influence on Priestley's thinking in the 1930s was the Christian Socialist philosopher John Macmurray: Macmurray, Creative Society: A Study of the Relation of Christianity to Communism (London: SCM Press, 1935).
(53) Priestley, Rain, pp. 175–6; see also Midnight, pp. 9–10; Margin, p. 180.
(54) Priestley, ‘Masses, workers and the people’.
(55) Priestley, Midnight, pp. 102–3.
(56) Priestley, ‘Masses, workers and the people’.
(57) Priestley, Wonder Hero, pp. 16–27; J. B. Priestley, They Walk in the City: The Lovers in the Stone Forest (London: Heinemann, 1936), pp. 417–18; English Journey, pp. 297–301.
(58) Priestley, Margin, pp. 79, 81; English Journey, p. 166.
(60) Priestley, Edwardians, pp. 289–90.
(61) Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: Pimlico, 1990), 352.
(62) Priestley, Edwardians, pp. 78, 61, 84, 53.
(63) Priestley, English Journey, p. 166; Rain, p. 224.
(64) Priestley, ‘Fifty years of the English’, in The Moments and Other Pieces (London; Heinemann, 1966), p. 201. First published in New Statesman (19 April 1963).
(65) Priestley, When We Are Married (1938), in The Plays of J. B. Priestley, vol. 2 (London: Heinemann, 1949), pp. 149, x.
(66) Cook, Priestley, p. 250.
(67) Priestley, Outcries, p. 85.
(68) Priestley, They Walk, p. 383.
(69) J. B. Priestley, Lost Empires (London: Heinemann, 1965), p. 33.
(75) Priestley, Literature, p. 92.
(76) Priestley, English Journey, pp. 409–11.
(77) Priestley, The Edwardians, p. 288.
(78) Priestley, They Walk, p. 385.
(79) Priestley, Margin, p. 185.
(80) Warwick Deeping, Sorrell and Son (London: Cassell & Co., 1925). On Deeping see Mary Grover, ‘The authenticity of the middlebrow: Warwick Deeping and cultural legitimacy, 1903–1940’, unpublished PhD thesis, School of Cultural Studies, Sheffield Hallam University, 2002.
(81) Bracco, ‘Betwixt and Between’, pp. 6, 17.
(82) Crossick (ed.), The Lower Middle Class in Britain.
(83) George and Weedon Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody (1892) (London: Penguin, 1999); C. F. G. Masterman, The Condition of England (London: Methuen,  1960), p. 59.
(84) Priestley, Outcries, p. 85.
(85) Priestley, Margin, p. 21.
(86) Priestley, The Good Companions (1929) (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), p. 397.
(87) Cited in Leavis, ‘What's wrong with criticism?’, p. 143.
(88) J. B. Priestley, ‘I want to know’, Sunday Dispatch (17 March 1929), p. 1; ‘On the pier at Wigan’, Sunday Dispatch (21 April 1929), p. 8.
(89) J. B. Priestley, Angel Pavement (London: Heinemann, 1930).
(90) J. B. Priestley, Introduction to the US Readers’ Club edition of Angel Pavement (1942); cited in Klein, Fiction, p. 104.
(92) Priestley, Angel Pavement (London: Mandarin, 1993), p. 593.
(93) S. P. B. Mais in the Daily Telegraph, quoted in Klein, Fiction, p. 104.
(94) George Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 1: An Age Like This 1920–1940, eds Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (London: Penguin Books, 1970), pp. 47–50. Orwell's review originally appeared in Adelphi (October 1930).
(95) D. J. Taylor, Orwell: The Life (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 111.
(97) Priestley, Bright Day, p. 150.
(98) Priestley, Angel Pavement (1993), p. 417.
(100) Priestley, Rain, pp. 245–6.
(101) Bookseller (11 April 1934), p. 1.
(102) ‘Complete analysis of the works of J. B. Priestley’ (dated 1956), in Random House Archive.
(103) See, for example, Beryl Bainbridge, English Journey, or The Road to Milton Keynes (London: Duckworth, 1984); Andrew Cross, An English Journey (London: Film and Video Umbrella, 2004), with accompanying DVD, and Richard West, An English Journey (London: Chatto and Windus, 1981), which despite its title fails to mention Priestley at all.
(104) Denys Thompson, ‘Comments and reviews’, Scrutiny 3:1 (June 1934), pp. 68–9.
(106) Priestley, English Journey, pp. 3–11.
(108) Priestley, English Journey, p. 62.
(116) Priestley, English Journey, p. 411.
(118) Priestley, Edwardians, p. 178; Margin, p. 30.
(119) Priestley, Rain, p. 251.
(120) Thompson, ‘Comments and reviews’, p. 68.
(121) Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 121–7.
(122) Priestley, English Journey, p. 406.
(123) Clarion (19 May 1934).
(124) H. V. Morton, In Search of England (London: Methuen, 1927), and The Call of England (London: Methuen, 1928). Michael Bartholomew, In Search of H. V. Morton (London: Methuen, 2004).
(125) Philip Gibbs, European Journey: Being the Narrative of a Journey in France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and the Saar in the Spring and Summer of 1934 (London: Heinemann, 1934); England Speaks (London: Heinemann, 1935); Ordeal in England (England Speaks Again) (London: Heinemann, 1937); Morton, In Search.
(126) Priestley, Rain, pp. 78–84.
(127) Storm Jameson, ‘Documents’, in Fact 4 (July 1937), quoted in Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 330.
(128) Quoted in Cook, Priestley, p. 151.
(129) J. B. Priestley, ‘Some reflections of a popular novelist’, London Mercury 27: 158 (December 1932), p. 140.
(130) Priestley, Outcries p. 98.
(131) Priestley, Rain, pp. 111–14.
(132) Priestley, Rain, p. 83.
(133) Andrew Higson, ‘“Britain's outstanding contribution to the film”: The documentary-realist tradition’, in Charles Barr (ed.), All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 1986), pp. 72–97.
(134) J. B. Priestley, ‘The truth about a tramp's life’, Evening Standard (12 January 1933), p. 11.
(135) See Angus Calder's account of an interview with Priestley in Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, p. 187.
(136) Cunningham, British Writers, pp. 239–40.
(137) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 141.
(139) Bracco, ‘Betwixt and Between’, p. 72.
(140) Quoted in Cook, Priestley, p. 151.
(141) Sing As We Go (1934: dir. Basil Dean). John Baxendale and Christopher Pawling, Narrating the Thirties: A Decade in the Making (London: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 70–8; Andrew Higson, Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), chapter 4; Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace (London: Routledge, 1984), pp. 181–90.
(142) Priestley, Wonder Hero, pp. 199–260.
(144) Klein, Fiction, p. 156.
(145) Higson, Waving, p. 117.
(146) Priestley, English Journey, p. 253.
(147) Priestley, ‘I spotted Gracie's genius but others laughed’, Sunday Chronicle (18 June 1939), p. 7.
(149) John Sedgwick, ‘Regional distinctions in the consumption of films and stars in mid-1930s Britain’, www.history.ac.uk/projects/elec/sem18.html, accessed 24 May 2005. Basil Dean, Mind's Eye (London: Hutchinson, 1973), p. 210.
(150) Higson, Waving, p. 121; Sedwick, ‘Regional distinctions’.
(151) Higson, Waving, p. 175.
(152) Tony Aldgate, ‘Comedy, class and containment: the British domestic cinema of the 1930s’, in J. Curran and V. Porter (eds), British Cinema History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983), pp. 270–1.
(153) Priestley, Midnight, p. 49.
(154) Priestley to Walpole, 12 July 1936, quoted in Cook, Priestley, p. 150.
(155) Priestley, Midnight, p. 49.
(156) Priestley, Margin, p. 191.
(157) J. B. Priestley, ‘Britain wake up!’, News Chronicle (10 January 1939), p. 8.
(158) J. B. Priestley, ‘Where is our democracy?’, News Chronicle (11 January 1939), p. 8.
(159) J. B. Priestley, ‘The big sham’, News Chronicle (12 January 1939), p. 14.
(160) J. B. Priestley, ‘Two kinds of unemployed’, News Chronicle (13 January 1939), p. 17.
(161) J. B. Priestley, ‘Thunder on the left’, News Chronicle (14 January 1939), p. 14.
(162) J. B. Priestley, ‘And, in conclusion’, News Chronicle (17 January 1939), p. 4.